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John Jasper, a brooding, moody choirmaster at a finishing school in Victorian England, maintains a secret life that includes frequenting an opium den. His tortured mind becomes obsessed with a young student, Rosa Bud, who is engaged to his nephew Edwin Drood. When she senses the intensity of Jasper's feelings, she becomes frightened of him and avoids his company. When the mixed-blooded Neville Landless and his twin sister Helena arrive at the school from Ceylon, Neville and Edwin take an immediate dislike to one another over Rosa's affections. Although they quarrel and make up, Edwin disappears, and suspicion logically falls on the quick-tempered Neville. Written by
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Charles Dickens reputation did not need THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD to survive his death in 1870. He already had David COPPERFIELD, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, PICKWICK PAPERS, BLEAK HOUSE, OLIVER TWIST, A Christmas CAROL, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and seven or eight other titles to remind the world of his talents. But he was a very jealous man. He edited a magazine, ALL THE YEAR ROUND, and had been lucky enough to get his friend, William Wilkie Collins, to write a novel for it to be serialized. It was THE MOONSTONE. It became the best selling series of issues for the magazine - outstripping issues that had contained Dickens' novel OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. Dickens did not care for that.
He had been accused of writing sensational novels by his critics. OLIVER TWIST was certainly a crime centered tale of gangs of youths trained to be thieves in London. Murders played parts in MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT, BLEAK HOUSE, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. In his lesser fiction, he had used characters based on real life poisoners Thomas Griffith Wainewright and Dr. William Palmer. But in all of his books Dickens used crime and criminal as an element, not the central element, of the story. He was a social critic, and he had to notice crime as part of the social scene. Collins did this too, but he centered his plots on the crimes in the stories. Dickens, who could plot as well as Collins, could not quite see how differently the two approached novel writing.
So Dickens decided he would write one novel where the center would be the commission of a crime: to wit, the disappearance (and probable murder) of the title character Edwin ("Ned") Drood. The novel's main figure would be Drood's young uncle (and rival) John Jasper. Both are in love with Rosa Bud, the ward of the lawyer Hiram Grewgious. Jasper, who is the choirmaster in "an old cathedral town" (based on Canterbury), is a secret opiun user. He loves his nephew, and yet cannot avoid hating him as a rival for the young woman. But they are not the only rivals here. Ned Landless, the brother of Helene Landless, is a headstrong young man who is courting Rosa (and it turns out he is actually the one she favors). There is a public scene between Landless and Drood, in which Landless threatens his rival, while a thoughtful Jasper looks on. Finally, Rosa and Edwin have a talk, and she firmly breaks off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Edwin Drood vanishes.
Has he left to bury his wounded heart abroad? Has he met with an accident in which he has lost his memory, or is injured and unable to get notice to his friends? Has he been killed in an accident? Has he committed suicide? Has he been murdered...and by whom?
Jasper, of course, starts hinting broadly that his dear Ned has been murdered, and the murderer is Neville Landless. Landless insists that he and Drood have made up their quarrel (but there appears to be no witness to this). Jasper starts putting pressure on the local authorities (led by a beautiful example of Dickensian bureaucratic stupidity, Lord Mayor Thomas Sapsea) to arrest Neville, even though no body has been located. Neville flees.
Jasper has the situation in his hand ... except that Neville's sister Helene does not trust him (and she makes a smitten ally in a young naval officer, Lieutenant Tartar). Grewgious also has his suspicions, when Jasper faints when he hears from the lawyer that Edwin and Rosa had broken their engagement. Reverend Crisparkle, the local clergyman, keeps Rosa comforted - but he is worried because Neville's fleeing is not good for his reputation of being innocent. Then to add to Jasper's woes, the old lady running the opium den he frequents (known as "the Princess Puffer") shows up, apparently looking into possible blackmail after she overhears something Jasper said about the missing Ned while under the drug. Similarly a stranger with a long white beard, Dick Datcherly, comes to town, and is making many inquiries. He meets the Princess Puffer, and he also meets "Durdles", the keeper of the local cathedral's burial grounds, who tells him about Jasper's interest in quicklime, and in the Sapsea memorial, which is supposed to be empty.
After completing about two thirds of EDWIN DROOD, Dickens died suddenly. He left a literary puzzle that remains to perplex and bother his fans to this day.
From my description it looks like he was aiming at Drood being murdered, and the murderer being John Jasper. Most of the details that survive suggest that Edwin was not going to reappear. But was Neville to reappear? Or was he Datcherly (or was Tartar or Grewgious Datcherly...or was Datcherly a new character in his own right - sent by Neville)? Who would uncover the truth: Datcherly, Grewgious, Neville, Helene, Rosa?
In OLIVER TWIST the novel ended with a masterfully horror scene of Fagin in the death cell awaiting for his execution. Similar scenes were in BARNABY RUDGE, and (slightly changed) in A TALE OF TWO CITIES. It has beens suggested that DROOD would have ended with Jasper in the death cell, thinking about his crimes (he may actually have ended up killing at least two other characters before the end), and defending his conduct to his own satisfaction. If so, it would have been a true masterpiece of detective fiction. Instead it survives as a perplexing fragment which many people (including the actor, Sir Felix Aylmer) have tried to tear the secret out of.
I saw the musical version of this in the 1980s, which (ironically enough) starred George Rose - who would die by a planned murder within two years of my seeing him on stage. The musical concentrated on a "who-dunnit" with audience participation. It was okay, but missed the point that a detective story by Dickens had to be more than a "who-dunnit", but a sensible piece of literary craftsmanship.
This film is okay too. Douglas Montgomery, a forgotten actor, gave one of his best performances as Neville (and Datcherly in this version). Rains is masterful as the moody, and suspicious acting Jasper. One only wishes E.E.Clive were given more time to expand on the pompous Sapsea, but he touches on him well. But the melodrama is pushed here, not the treatment Dickens probably had in mind. As an entertainment, I'd recommend it. As a dose of Dickens...read the fragment he left, think about what I said, and weep for what we lost.
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